Eviction Threat Takes Health Toll On Those Who Are At Risk
Gov. Ron DeSantis first ordered a stay on evictions to protect people from losing their homes during the coronavirus pandemic last April. It has since been extended, but experts say housing insecurity can impact physical and mental health.
Last week, as four of his kids played under a tree at a law office parking lot, Jose, a mechanic from Palmetto, was inside the building getting advice after his family had to leave their trailer home. His wife waited in the car with their 1-year-old baby. Jose, who didn't want to use his last name, is 38 and says until recently, he never had a problem paying his rent on time. But in June, he tested positive for the coronavirus, got sick and was unable to work.
"Being sick, I was behind on rent,” he said. “I gave him what I could, but come August 1st, the landlord cut off our water. We had no water in our trailer and from there we got our lights cut off."
With no electricity to the unit, Jose got some money from his mother so his family could spend a night in a motel.
“It's a trailer house, we're in Florida and it’s very hot,” he said. “I couldn't have my kids sleeping like that."
The next day, when Jose returned to the trailer, all of the family’s furniture had been removed.
Jose and his family were not formally evicted. There was no paperwork filed, the landlord simply made living conditions untenable.
“What the landlord did is sometimes referred to as a constructive eviction,” said Jeff Canup, an attorney with Gulf Coast Legal Services, which provides free legal aid to vulnerable people.
“By cutting off the water and power to the unit, and disposing of his furniture, the landlord just took it upon himself to create the conditions that effectively removed Jose from the unit.”
Canup says Jose can take the landlord to court, but that does little to help his family right now, and Jose says their sudden homelessness has been hard on everyone.
And he isn’t alone. According to estimates, millions of Americans are at risk of losing their homes.
"It is astonishing and incredibly worrisome the level of suffering that we could see if conditions don't change and if the government doesn't act," said Sam Gilman of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a coalition of researchers, monitoring data on housing insecurity. “And it goes without saying that it’s not right or safe to evict people into a pandemic.”
Gilman says evictions have already started across areas of the country now that the federal eviction moratorium has ended. Even in Florida, with a moratorium still in place, the safety net is tenuous.
That's because when DeSantis extended the order in July, he also changed the rules.
Eviction lawsuits may now proceed through the courts. But if tenants can prove they can’t pay their rent because of the coronavirus, they can stay in their homes for now. Meanwhile, the rent that they owe continues to accumulate and tenants will eventually have to pay it.
More funding will be necessary if the tsunami of evictions that has been predicted does happen. For now, the DeSantis administration has pledged $250 million in CARES Act funding for rental and mortgage assistance for Florida families that have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fear of losing your home can be very scary, says Jacquelyn Flood, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.
"Anytime there's a situation where you're not sure what's going to happen, its unpredictable, you feel like things are outside of your control, it’s going to be a really stressful situation,” Flood said. “Every emotion in the book might come at you, and the longer it goes on, the less hope people have through the process.”
Stress can cause a myriad of mental health issues like anxiety and depression but it also impacts the body. Physical symptoms include high blood pressure, headaches and chest pain.
"I think those physiological things are like our red flags," she said. “Those are the things that are telling us that your system is not regulated and it’s not doing well. You have to make sure that your own body is able to function because you're not going to make it through if you don't take care of yourself."
According to data from the U.S Census Bureau, 51% of Floridians have lost income due to COVID-19 and 31% said they had little or no confidence that they would be able to pay their next rent or mortgage payment.
Kathleen Cramer is the executive director of Turning Points, a Manatee County nonprofit, which provides housing assistance to homeless people and those with housing and related health issues.
"When someone is put on furlough, when someone loses their job and they're not used to accessing service from the government, they're not going to their doctor because they know they don't have medical insurance," she said.
The agency does have a full service medical and dental clinic and she says whether at Turning Points or elsewhere, people should know that there are places that offer no- or low-cost health services.
"It is a misnomer that we only serve the homeless,” said Cramer. “Individuals can come in if they've had a loss of income, even if it’s just to fill the gap. Especially for those folks who have chronic illnesses and need regular medication. Do not put off your medical care."
As for Jose, he's recovered and back at work. But it will take time to bounce back after months without a paycheck. He says the past few months have been a struggle.
"It's not easy, he said. “Only me and my wife actually know the facts. It's hard to explain to the kids what's going on. So it's hard. Covid's no joke."
Jose received a 14-day motel voucher through a grant from Turning Points. They’re also working to find permanent housing for the family.
In the meantime, not having a place to call home has taken a toll on everyone.